Unit 9 World War I and the Great Migration, 1915-1920


African Americans were very much a part of the effort, in the words of President Woodrow Wilson, “to make the world safe for democracy.” Indeed, between the American entry in World War I (April 1917) and the war’s end (November 1918), roughly 386,000 blacks served in the nation’s armed forces (380,000 in the army, 6,000 in the navy), making up about 10 percent of the total wartime American servicemen population. Approximately 200,000 black soldiers saw service in Europe; 38,000 served as combat troops, while the rest performed backbreaking chores in labor and stevedore battalions. In combat engagement 750 African Americans were killed and 5,000 wounded.

Racial discrimination pervaded the experience of black World War I servicemen. Blacks, for example, were excluded outright from the marines and army aviation corps and were restricted to serving as messmen (for example cooks and stewards) in the navy. It was assumed that blacks were less capable of combat duty than whites, so in order to minimize the number of black combat troops, the four standing black regiments (Twenty- fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry; Ninth and Tenth Calvary) all in existence by 1870, were assigned stateside during the war. Only the newly formed Ninety-third Division, composed of national guard units from several states and one regiment of draftees, and the Ninety-second Division, composed solely of draftees, saw combat in France. The four regiments of the Ninety-third were in fact assigned to the French army becoming the only American units completely integrated into a foreign army; they wore French uniforms and used French weapons. Further, black draftees were organized overwhelmingly into all-black labor battalions that, both at home and in Europe, performed arduous tasks (loading and unloading ships, felling trees, building and repairing roads and railroads, and building warehouses and supply dumps). Finally, because it was felt that the army and the war effort would be best served by having black troops led by white officers, a ceiling was placed on the advance of black officers beyond the junior grades; all black troops were commanded by whites.

The 38,000 African Americans who saw combat in France fought well on the whole, especially the Ninety-third Division. Members of New York’s famed 369th Infantry Regiment (the “Men of Bronze”), the division’s first regiment to arrive in Europe, were the first black soldiers to whom the French awarded the Croix de Guerre, their highest military honor. Needham Roberts of Trenton was one of the first two black recipients of this award.

Wartime experience helped many black servicemen resist racial discrimination more aggressively on their return home. Some developed this attitude through training for combat duty. In others it came as part of a broadened world view, acquired by simply leaving home and witnessing alternative living and work situations. And those who traveled to France were generally treated there with a civility that probably made white American racial bigotry more difficult to tolerate.

Although blacks served in World War I, black leadership was divided over their service. Among those who believed African American participation would earn the gratitude of whites, improve the racial climate at home, and give new meaning to American democracy were W.E.B. DuBois, whose famous “Close Ranks” editorial in the Crisis of July 1918 expressed this view, and Emmett J. Scott, Tuskegee Institute’s secretary, who served as the adviser on black affairs to the secretary of the army. A. Philip Randolph, who was the co-editor of Messenger, a labor/socialist publication, and would become black America’s foremost labor leader, was perhaps the most outspoken foe of African American participation. In fact, for urging blacks to resist conscription he, along with Chandler Owen, the other editor of Messenger, was arrested in 1918 under the Espionage Act of 1917. Charges against them were ultimately dropped.

Perhaps the greatest effect of World War I on African American life was its triggering of the first phase of the Great Migration, the unprecedented movement of southern blacks northward. During this phase, between 1915 and 1920 (the second phase was between 1920 and 1930), approximately 500,000 blacks trekked northward; the years between 1916 and 1918 had the greatest volume. After believing, wrongly, that blacks would return quickly to the South, white southerners became truly alarmed as the pace of migration quickened. They resorted to legal (the arrest of northern labor recruiters) and extralegal (refusal to sell African Americans train tickets for travel to northern cities) methods to prevent the relocation of the black labor force that had supported the southern economy.

The migration reflected a push/pull syndrome. The pull involved the great wartime demand for labor in the North. This demand resulted from the increase in war production, the draft’s removal of many workers from the labor force, and the unwillingness of European immigrants, the traditional source of labor for northern industries, to risk the wartime dangers of trans-Atlantic boat travel. Other factors that helped lure migrants northward were the region’s relative greater racial safety, its better educational opportunities, the specific urgings to come North by the black northern press, especially Robert Abbott’s Chicago Defender, and labor recruiters sent South by northern companies to persuade African Americans to take jobs in the North. Push factors in the South that prompted blacks to leave the region included the Jim Crow system and its attendant threats of lynchings and mob violence. Many sharecroppers left after becoming unemployed when heavy rains and the boll weevil that flourishes under wet conditions combined to ruin cotton crops in 1915 and 1916.

New Jersey was one of the principal states to which southern blacks moved in great numbers between 1915 and 1920. Aside from the availability of jobs and the general search for a better life, some migrants settled in New Jersey because its cities were of a medium size, offering a somewhat slower urban pace than the great northern metropolises. The state’s cities also accommodated the spillover from the large migration to its two neighbors, New York City (Harlem in particular) and Philadelphia. Of New Jersey’s major cities, Newark and Trenton had by 1920 experienced the greatest percentage increase in black population. For both cities the number of African Americans nearly doubled, Newark’s black population rising from 9,475 in 1910 to 16,977 in 1920, and Trenton’s from 2,581 in 1910 to 4,315 in 1920. Reflecting chain migration, migrants to New Jersey and other northeastern states tended to come from southern states along the Atlantic coastline (Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida) while migrants to the midwestern states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio followed a migration route that led directly north from such states as Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisiana.

The Great Migration had many consequences, among them the first entry of black workers on a large scale into the industrial work force — the making of a black urban proletariat. The rapid rise of large, racially segregated communities in the urban North — black ghettos — was another, one with enormous implications for black political power and black business opportunities. Also, through the transporting of black southern folkways into the North, migrants transformed northern black cultural life. The “blues” and foodways were among the features of black southern culture transplanted to the North.

Northern white resistance to the migrants, the creation of racial friction and conflict, was another consequence of African American movement northward. White social and economic fears (the latter focusing on job competition) surfaced and prompted race riots in many northern cities. Such outbreaks of violence occurred in two years in particular: 1917 and 1919.

Newark witnessed a racial clash in 1917. Termed a “race riot” by the Newark Evening News, it occurred on September 3 and lasted for several hours. It was precipitated by a dispute arising from a dice game involving black and white youths near Broome and Montgomery Streets, where the black population had recently increased appreciably. At its height, black and white mobs, armed with revolvers, knives, bottles, clubs, and bricks, fought each other. Many were injured and one black and one white were hospitalized. Fifteen blacks were arrested; the presiding judge at their arraignment questioned the fairness of the arrest of only blacks.

The most serious racial incident of 1917 took place in East Saint Louis, Illinois, when forty-two African Americans were killed. That eight whites lost their lives reflects clearly an increased black tendency, in the face of the upsurge in assaults by whites, to engage in retaliatory violence. This willingness to strike back was even more pronounced several weeks later in Houston, when members of the Twenty-fourth Infantry’s Third Battalion, after being insulted and beaten by whites, broke into their camp’s ammunition storage room, then marched into Houston and killed fifteen whites while suffering four casulties. Their perfunctory trial, which led to thirteen soldiers being hanged on charges of murder and mutiny, provoked considerable outrage in the black community nationwide.

The year 1919 witnessed an even greater number of riots, some twenty-six taking place during what was called the Red Summer. The riot in Chicago was by far the nation’s most devastating; thirteen days without law and order resulted in the deaths of twenty-three blacks and fifteen whites.

Helping to fuel increased interracial friction and strife (the number of black lynchings rose from 36 in 1917 to 76 in 1919) was the 1915 rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta, Georgia. In addition to African Americans, the new Klan targeted Jews, Catholics, and foreigners. In so doing, it reflected both the general xenophobia of the wartime period and the rise in nativist sentiment that occurred as the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe entered this country between the late nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century on a scale unprecedented in immigration history.

In the face of the upsurge in white racism during and after the war, black nationalist and separatist sentiments appealed to African Americans on a greater scale. Perhaps the growth of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) exemplifies this best. Brought to this country in 1916 by the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, the UNIA, headquartered in Harlem, began its own newspaper in 1918 — The Negro World — and in 1919 incorporated the Black Star Line, an ill-fated, three-ship fleet created primarly to effect better international trade and travel opportunities for blacks. By 1919 the UNIA claimed over two million members.


World War I had a tremendous impact on the black American community. Through the demand it created for black labor in northern industrial cities, it effected the first truly massive movement of blacks out of the South. Black veterans, their horizons broadened, contributed to the emergence in the 1920s of what was called the New Negro, a black American more given to assuming a defiant protest mode in challenging white racism.

Materials and Preparation

Students should read either chapters 23-25 in The African American Experience: A History (“The Civil Rights Struggle, 1900-1941,” “The Great Migration, 1915-1930” and “Black Nationalism, 1916-1929”), or chapters 30-31 in African American History (“World War I” and “Nationalism in the Black Community”).

The students should read the letters of black migrants to the Chicago Defender and become familiar with the Great Migration patterns shown on map #7.

Students and the teacher should read pages 54-68 in Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History.

The teacher should read chapters 16, 17, and 20 in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (“In Pursuit of Democracy,” “Democracy Escapes,” and “The American Dilemma”).

Time Period

Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.



  1. Compare and contrast the opposing arguments black leaders voiced over black American participation in World War I.
  2. Remind students that some black leaders (for example, W.E.B. DuBois) supported black participation in World War I, while others (for example, A. Philip Randolph) did not. Those in support argued that blacks would be rewarded for their patriotism, that the perception of being unpatriotic would only heighten hostility toward black Americans, that opposition to the war could lead to imprisonment, and that America, notwithstanding its flaws, was still the best place for black Americans. Those opposed to participation maintained that white America, because of its racist attitudes and practices, was undeserving of black support, that support would incline whites to take blacks for granted and continue their racist practices, and that blacks would encounter discrimination in the service. Divide the class into two groups and let the two groups of students debate the issue of black participation in World War I.
  3. Evaluation: Have the students pretend they are (like Dr. W.E.B. DuBois) the editor of Crisis. They should write a 500-word editorial that argues either for or against black participation in World War I.


  1. Analyze a historical document as a primary source of information about the Great Migration.
  2. Have students read copies of letters written to the Chicago Defender by prospective migrants. Ask students what these letters reveal about the migrants (such as places of origin, educational background). Students should also use these letters as a basis for identifying those factors, some “push” and some “pull,” that motivated multitudes of African Americans to leave the South during World War I.
  3. Evaluation: Have students pretend they are a young black woman who, as a part of the Great Migration, has recently left Georgia and is now living in Newark. Have her write a letter home in which she mentions her reason (s) for leaving Georgia and what her living and work conditions are like in Newark. Point out to students that physical/sexual abuse by black and white men often motivated black women to leave the South.


  1. Identify the Great Migration’s main corridors.
  2. Students should be informed that historically African Americans in certain parts of the South moved to particular northern areas. For example, blacks from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland have traditionally relocated to northern cities like Philadelphia, Newark, and New York City. Divide the class into two groups of migrants. One group should represent blacks who moved from the South to the North along the Atlantic coastline axis. The other group should be composed of those blacks who used the migration axis between mid-western cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland and states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. Have each group discuss life in its particular area of the North. For example, male newcomers to Chicago and Detroit might discuss working in the meatpacking and automobile industries respectively while a counterpart who settled in Newark might talk about working on the docks. Northern weather, especially the winters, might also be a topic for discussion.
  3. Evaluation: Have the students pretend they are a Newark journalist in 1919 whose assignment is to write about the recent influx of migrants from the South. The article should include Map #8 , on which the journalist should indicate the overall migration patterns associated with the Great Migration as shown on map #7 . It should also offer a profile of a recent black newcomer from South Carolina who points out what he or she likes or dislikes about Newark.

Supplemental Activities

  1. Show students the film Men of Bronze, an exciting documentary about the all-black 369th Regiment, which served in France under the Fourth French Army during World War I (58 minutes). It can be obtained from Worldview Entertainment, Inc., Killiam Collection, 500 Greenwich Street, Suite 501A, New York, New York 10013 (212-925-4291).
  2. Have students read The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I (1974) by Florette Henri and Arthur E. Barbeau and prepare a 500-word book report on it.

Key Persons

Robert Abbott. Founder and editor of the Chicago Defender, a major black newspaper that encouraged African Americans to leave the South and migrate north.

Marcus Garvey. Jamaican native and black nationalist who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, the largest black mass protest movement ever in the United States.

A. Philip Randolph. Co-editor of The Messenger, a labor/socialist publication, and an outspoken opponent of black participation in World War I. He later became the foremost black labor leader as the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids and one of the outstanding civil rights leaders of the 20th century.

Emmett J. Scott. The Secretary of Tuskegee Institute, he served as the adviser on black affairs to the secretary of the army during World War I.

Annotated Bibliography and Suggested Reading


Gerber, David. 1976. Black Ohio and the Color Line, 1860-1915.
A study that sheds light on the little-discussed problems of the small African American population found in the Mid-West prior to the Great Migration.
Green, Constance M. 1967. The Secret City.
An excellent study of race relations and black life in the nation’s capital from its beginning to 1960.
Harris, William. 1982. The Harder We Run.
A short, data-filled study of black workers from the Civil War to the 1970s that includes an examination of migration and urbanization.
Haynes, Robert. 1976. A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917.
This story of black soldiers rioting shows the kind of discriminatory conditions blacks in the military faced on the homefront during World War I, their reactions, and the shameful consequences they suffered.
Henri, Florette. 1975. Black Migration.
A study that examines the push/pull of the Great Migration to the North and how northern urban life was altered by this movement.
Higham, John. 1955. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1880-1925.
Classic study of the racist and ethnocentric reactions in a generally xenophobic America to changing socioeconomic developments at the turn of the century. It provides a basic backdrop to understanding the underlying condemnation blacks faced when they migrated to the North before and during the Great Migration.
Katzman, David M. 1971. Before the Ghetto:Black Detroit in the Nineteenth Century.
The African American Detroit community that existed before the Great Migration is examined historically in this study.
Kusmer, Kenneth. 1976. A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930.
This volume examines black life in Cleveland from 1870 to the Depression and the racial problems the black community encountered.
Lynch, Hollis, ed. 1973. The Black Urban Condition.
Exhaustive collection of primary sources tracing the history of African American urban life to 1970.
Osofsky, Gilbert. 1966. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto.
Informative socio-economic and political account of Harlem’s transformation from a largely white ethnic community (mainly jewish) to an African American and Afro-Caribbean community by 1925.
Spear, Alan H. 1967. Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto,1890-1920.
Examines black life in Chicago from 1890 to 1920, focusing on the cultural, economic, and institutional facets of this life before the Great Migration and the impact of the Great Migration on the city’s whites and blacks.
Tuttle, William, M. Jr. 1970. Race Riot.
Pinpoints economic and residential roots, violent nature, and early consequences of Chicago’s race riot in 1919.
Waskow, Arthur I. 1966. From Race Riot to Sit-In: 1919 and the 1960s.
Comparative study of post-World War I urban riots and those of the turbulent 1960s.
Wolters, Raymond. 1975. The New Negro on Campus: Black College Rebellions of the 1920s.
Best account of a little-known nascent black consciousness movement of the early twentieth century, a forerunner of the political and cultural campus crusades of the 1950s and 1960s.


Barbeau, Arthur, and Florette Henri. 1974. Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I.
Best account of the black doughboys, whose battlefield exploits were more heralded by their European allies, particularly the French, than by their fellow Americans.
Hanley, Jack. 1989. A. Philip Randolph: Labor Leader.
Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
Lawler, Mary. 1988. Marcus Garvey: Black Nationalist Leader.
Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.


Map 7 The Great Migration (PDF)

Map 8 The United States at the Time of the Great Migration (PDF)

Letters of Black Migrants to the Chicago Defender

Digitized by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Wednesday, April 23, 2003